Over the years doctors had given the Milton, Pa., resident various diagnoses for the episodes, which she said began with an aura — an odd feeling of disorientation sometimes tinged with fear. She would stare blankly, sometimes grasping at unseen objects or briefly losing consciousness. These incidents, which lasted two minutes at most, occurred without warning, leaving her feeling tired and cold but with no memory of what had just happened.
Most specialists agreed that the spells were seizures that sometimes follow a migraine headache. But how, MacDonald wondered, could she have migraine seizures when the occasional headaches she had were not severe? Doctors brushed that question aside, and MacDonald resigned herself to living with whatever was wrong.
“I told my husband, ‘I will not go back to another doctor. I guess when I drop over someone will believe me,’ ” said MacDonald, now 39.
In 2009, a new neurologist took a fresh look at her case and in short order figured out what was wrong. The answer, this doctor subsequently learned, had been buried in MacDonald’s records for years.
Frozen in place
MacDonald was picking up her infant son in 1998 when the first episode occurred. As she reached into the crib, the left side of her body suddenly went numb and she felt frozen in place. The episode was over in a matter of seconds, but she was spooked. MacDonald called her family doctor, who suggested she might have experienced a transient ischemic attack. Sometimes called a mini stroke, a TIA causes no permanent damage, but it can be a harbinger of a disabling stroke. She underwent an MRI scan, which revealed no sign of a TIA.
Several months later, after the episodes recurred, a neurologist ordered another MRI, which suggested an ominous cause: a brain lesion. MacDonald was advised to see a neurosurgeon immediately because she might have a malignant brain tumor. After several anxious weeks she learned the lesion was simply a blood vessel.
But doctors were unable to explain the recurring episodes. “I would feel a spell coming on starting with a weird feeling that I really can’t describe,” she recalled. “My husband said I would get a blank stare and sometimes I would reach out a grab at things or ramble about the laundry” — saying things that made no sense — or smack her lips. MacDonald had no memory of the spells. Her doctors were baffled because tests including electroencephalographs and various scans revealed nothing. “I let it go,” MacDonald said.